It has taken 50 years, four wars and countless skirmishes to bring Israel and Syria to the point where a peace agreement seems within reach. But as far as Adel Mithiab is concerned, his country will wait centuries more before discussing any deal that does not include a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.
This, in the Syrian mind, is not a mere bargaining point. It has been taught in the schools, reinforced in the media and reiterated by politicians for so long that it stands as a sort of immutable law. As long as Israeli leaders hesitate to concede the point, said Mithiab, a Damascus restaurant manager, there is no reason to continue talking.
"It may be 100 years, maybe 200 years, but in the end our land will return," said Mithiab, sitting behind a table at the converted century-old train car that he runs as a restaurant at this city's historic Hejaz Railway Station.
The rail car was once owned by a Turkish sultan who ruled Syria under the Ottoman Empire, and Mithiab said the setting proves his point: Successive Turkish and French administrations ran portions of Syria for hundreds of years, but in the end Syrian patience outlasted the country's outside rulers.
"We want peace," he said, "and we are waiting."
The postponement of Syrian-Israeli talks that had been scheduled to resume Wednesday may, as U.S. officials said, be part of the cycle of difficult diplomacy, something lower-level working groups can iron out in continued meetings even as the main players wait at home. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa have held two rounds of discussions over the past month, and neither ruled out getting together again.
But the postponement also showed how thoroughly this discussion, from the Syrian perspective, revolves around one Israeli decision: Either the Jewish state is prepared to return Syrian land seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, or it is not, and if it is not, then no amount of negotiation or American mediation will help.
"The Israeli side must commit itself to fulfill the borders' demarcation so we can say that we have made a step toward peace," the government-run al-Thawra newspaper said in its lead editorial today. Barak "is playing the game of time, putting the rare opportunity to achieve peace at risk," the English-language Syria Times contended.
There has been no open warfare along the Syrian-Israeli frontier since the 1970s. However, Syria is said to play a role in attacks against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, and long-standing enmity between the two countries is considered a barrier to Israel's hopes of better relations with the Arab and Muslim world at large. The Syrian economy and political system, meanwhile, remain closed and centrally controlled in part because of the conflict with Israel.
Since the 1967 war, Syria has not wavered in its stance on the Golan Heights, a plateau that held strategic importance in the days of land war between the two countries but is significant now more as a security buffer zone and as fertile, water-rich real estate. About 400,000 Syrians, relatives of the 150,000 people who Syria estimates lived in the Golan before 1967, trace their roots to homes and farms vacated before the conquering Israeli army.
Barak and other Israeli politicians have, in various formulations, acknowledged they must withdraw from the region to achieve peace with Syria, but as far as is known they have refused to do so in the current negotiations. And even while acknowledging the principle, Israel is reported to favor the border drawn by British and French mandate authorities in 1923, while Syria insists on the line as it stood in 1967--a tiny difference, but one that defines who controls the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The fact that Syria is emphasizing its claim now and putting the negotiations on hold until Israel makes its intentions clearer, reflects a frustration with the U.S.-mediated talks and the dynamics of Syria's internal politics, Syrian officials said.
U.S. officials have been dismissive of the role public opinion plays in Syria, where President Hafez Assad has kept a tight rein during nearly 29 years of military rule. Yet that does not mean it is nonexistent, or that Assad's government can ignore public perceptions, the Syrian officials said.
The opening of talks in December was greeted with optimism here and with unusually positive coverage of Israel and Barak--a step forward from the days when Israel's very existence was denied. But since then, Syrians have been treated to news of tens of thousands of Israelis protesting the peace talks, criticizing Syria as a dangerous dictatorship and expressing fears about terrorism if Syria regains control of the Golan. By contrast, there have been no anti-Israel protests in Syria; recent Arab press reports indicate Syrian security forces may have been slowly rounding up people opposed to the peace process.
Among Islamic fundamentalists, Palestinian refugees and hard-line Arab nationalists, "hundreds of thousands of people don't want Israel to exist," said one Syrian official. "What will the Israelis give us" to offset that potential for domestic opposition? he asked.
On the substance of the talks, an American draft document leaked in Israel indicated Syrian concessions on several sensitive Israeli demands, such as maintenance of a listening post in the Golan and an exchange of ambassadors, without any explicit Israeli concessions on land. Such flexibility, from a government that has set itself as the standard-bearer for Arab opposition to Israel, shows Syria is serious about a deal, said one official here, and puts it in a position to demand that Israel prove its sincerity by entering into negotiations on the Golan withdrawal.
"What Syria needs is its occupied land," said Youssef Magdassi, a former editor of the government-owned Tishrin newspaper and now an official with the Information Ministry. "When President Assad said peace was a strategic choice, it was not a joke, not a moment. He meant what he was saying. Israel is dealing with this issue like a bazaar--buying and selling."
CAPTION: A Syrian flag flies near an Israeli military intelligence base on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Talks on a deal for Israel to return the region to Syria have been indefinitely postponed.